Pipelining: 101

It seems like every time Intel releases a new processor we have to revisit the topic of pipelining to help explain why a 3GHz P4 performs like a 2GHz Athlon 64. With a 55% longer pipeline than Northwood, Prescott forces us to revisit this age old topic once again.

You've heard it countless times before: pipelining is to a CPU as the assembly line is to a car plant. A CPU's pipeline is not a physical pipe that data goes into and appears at the end of, instead it is a collection of "things to do" in order to execute instructions. Every instruction must go through the same steps, and we call these steps stages.

The stages of a pipeline do things like find out what instruction to execute next, find out what two numbers are going to be added together, find out where to store the result, perform the add, etc...

The most basic CPU pipeline can be divided into 5 stages:

1. Instruction Fetch
2. Decode Instructions
3. Fetch Operands
4. Execute
5. Store to Cache

You'll notice that those five stages are very general in their description, at the same time you could make a longer pipeline with more specific stages:

1. Instruction Fetch 1
2. Instruction Fetch 2
3. Decode 1
4. Decode 2
5. Fetch Operands
6. Dispatch
7. Schedule
8. Execute
9. Store to Cache 1
10. Store to Cache 2

Both pipelines have to accomplish the same task: instructions come in, results go out. The difference is that each of the five stages of the first pipeline must do more work than each of the ten stages of the second pipeline.

If all else were the same, you'd want a 5-stage pipeline like the first case, simply because it's easier to fill 5 stages with data than it is to fill 10. And if your pipeline is not constantly full of data, you're losing precious execution power - meaning your CPU isn't running as efficiently as it could.

The only reason you would want the second pipeline is if, by making each stage simpler, you can get the time it takes to complete each stage to be significantly quicker than in the previous design. Your slowest (most complicated) stage determines how quickly you can get data through each stage - keep that in mind.

Let's say that the first pipeline results in each stage taking 1ns to complete and if each stage takes 1 clock cycle to execute, we can build a 1GHz processor (1/1ns = 1GHz) using this pipeline. Now in order to make up for the fact that we have more stages (and thus have more of a difficult time keeping the pipeline full), the second design must have a significantly shorter clock period (the amount of time each stage takes to complete) in order to offer equal/greater performance to the first design. Thankfully, since we're doing less work per clock - we can reduce the clock period significantly. Assuming that we've done our design homework well, let's say we get the clock period down to 0.5ns for the second design.

Design 2 can now scale to 2GHz, twice the clock speed of the original CPU and we will get twice the performance - assuming we can keep the pipeline filled at all times. Reality sets in and it becomes clear that without some fancy footwork, we can't keep that pipeline full all the time - and all of the sudden our 2GHz CPU isn't performing twice as fast as our 1GHz part.

Make sense? Now let's relate this to the topic at hand.

Index 31 Stages: What’s this, Baskin Robbins?
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  • ianwhthse - Sunday, February 01, 2004 - link

    *sigh*

    Well, now I know.

    *goes to buy A64*
    Reply
  • KristopherKubicki - Sunday, February 01, 2004 - link

    read the article... Reply
  • Stlr22 - Sunday, February 01, 2004 - link

    31 stage pipeline?!.....lol..guess those "30 stage pipelne" rumors were true.

    These processors aren't bad at all. They performed on the same level as the Northwood versions. They just aren't worth the "premium" price tag that they will carry for now.

    Looks like there wont be a better time to grab a Northwwod,
    as I'm sure these puppies will keep dropping in price to make room for the Prescotts.
    Reply

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